Overheard at a bus stop on the Kew Road last week:
Visitor: “What’s the matter with that plane?”
Visitor: “But it’s so low and loud, is it in trouble?”
Resident: “No, this is Richmond.”
Overheard this morning on Sky News at 8:15:
Sir Howard Davies: “A relatively small proportion of the population are affected by noise.”
725,000 of us under the Heathrow flight path beg to differ. And that’s 725,000 before any expansion at Heathrow is considered.
240,000 of us live within the 57LAeq contour. Translation: it’s really very noisy here – just ask the World Health Organisation and the European Commission. No airport in Europe comes even close to that level of noise pollution, as in fact the Davies Commission interim report accepts.
This is not really about airport capacity. This is about money. There is a lot of it sloshing around in the UK aviation lobby and much of it geared towards Heathrow. How did we get to this stage? Why is it that even an officially independent report can have such a strong pro-Heathrow expansion slant? Why do we just accept that PR and advertising agencies can so cynically monopolise the debate in favour of giving vast sums of money to this private (non-UK) firm which owns Heathrow, while hundreds of thousands of people under the flight path are in danger?
The Conservatives in Westminster and beyond have wilfully gone along with this; their brief flirtation with anti-expansion rhetoric is now coming to an end. From George Osborne down, they have for two years been champing at the bit to expand. Those of their number on the anti-expansion side of the argument are irrelevant, alone, sidelined or quietly reshuffled away. Labour came up with the original plan for a third runway at Heathrow in the last Parliament.
So it’s worth, at this stage, recapping why the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning against Heathrow expansion for a generation rather than just popping along at the last election with the right message.
This airport will always come back for more. Third runway now, fourth runway later. Residents have been misled and let down every step of the way. Terminal 5 was to be absolutely the last bit of expansion. Don’t worry, residents were told, this will allow 90 million passengers. (In fact, because of load factors, Heathrow now says it is full at 70 million passengers. Funny, that.) And whenever it comes back for more, more local people suffer. Nothing the Davies Commission can say about Heathrow will mitigate that.
However quiet planes get, they are still noisy. However safe planes get, they are still flying above an extraordinarily densely populated chunk of residential London (just two years ago we had the grizzly story of the frozen body of a stowaway smash on to a pavement in residential Mortlake).
People close to the airport are known to suffer health problems and high levels of stress and anxiety due to exposure throughout the day from aircraft noise. Thousands of people living under the flight path are woken up before 5am. Incredibly, the report recommends a “smoothing” of morning flights which would mean more flights between 5am and 6am to finally finish off the prospect of people falling asleep again.
There is some relief around the Richmond Park constituency that a southern runway at Heathrow has not made it on to the shortlist of three. This would have seen a massive increase in air traffic over Ham, Petersham and North Kingston. However, a new North Westerly runway at Heathrow would still mean the destruction of villages and will still spread the noise misery to thousands more people. The other Heathrow option, put forward by a commercial third party, Heathrow Hub, would also see an increase in noise pollution (arguably less so at night, but the ‘smoothing’ between 5am and 6am which Davies recommends as a short term option makes this distinction barely one for celebration).
Everyone in the lobby or being lobbied will tell you that by questioning expansion plans, you are doing down the British economy. Never mind that London already has more runways than any European city with the exception of Paris (and far more passengers fly in and out of London than Paris). Never mind that even the Davies Commission interim report accepts that there is existing capacity in the UK which is under-used and that there is no immediate crisis. Never mind that passengers from regional airports are travelling through Heathrow to get to the continent, on planes which take up ridiculous amounts of slot space, with no incentive to change. Never mind that a mass expansion of Heathrow Airport would mean a grotesque increase in ground traffic throughout South West London – a point which merits barely a mention in the interim report.
The Liberal Democrat position on Heathrow is clear: the airport is big enough. We are opposed to a third runway, we have blocked it in this Parliament, we were the only Party to vote against it in Select Committee this year, and we oppose all night flights.
Sarah Ludford, the Liberal Democrat MEP for London and a leading opponent of Heathrow expansion puts it very simply:
Londoners, especially in West and South West London, cannot tolerate Heathrow expansion, whether increased noise or air pollution or safety hazards. I will fight it.
Let’s join her.
* Robin Meltzer is the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Richmond Park, North Kingston & New Malden.